Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1947. Mark Hellinger Productions. Story by Robert Patterson, Screenplay by Richard Brooks. Cinematography by William H. Daniels. Produced by Mark Hellinger. Music by Miklos Rozsa. Production Design by John DeCuir, Bernard Herzbrun. Costume Design by Rosemary Odell. Film Editing by Edward Curtiss.
Burt Lancaster played a string of soulful lugs after his breakthrough performance in The Killers, and this is one of the strongest of them. He’s an inmate at a prison run by a warden who wants to see things improve and doesn’t have high hopes for his chief guard (Hume Cronyn), who believes in being respectful of his inmates despite the fact that their infractions keep piling up.
The state is putting pressure to be tougher on prisoners and show voters how effective they are about solving crime, which eventually gets to Cronyn, who gives in to tyranny as Lancaster and a few of his fellow prisoners plan an escape.
The concluding battle is somewhat based on the Alcatraz riot (which would later be dramatized in another Burt Lancaster movie) and provides an exciting conclusion to what is a great example of drama simmering to a powerful boil.
The character interplay, including flashbacks to their life before incarceration, makes this a forerunner of The Shawshank Redemption and Orange Is The New Black, while the emphasis on gritty realism provides us with a film that isn’t quite as dazzling as the next year’s White Heat but hits deeper by being (by comparison) more convincing.
The Criterion Collection: #383